Inquiry Learning

In the past I’ve written about how powerful questions have inspired my students to take informed civic action. Of all my students’ accomplishments, nothing makes me prouder than their civic engagement, whether it’s in an NGO in Washington, a community foundation in Winston-Salem, a school in Kenya, an orphanage in Haiti, or wherever they choose to make a difference in the world. Their vital work all begins with a question.

Last week I led professional development trainings in North Carolina and Virginia in the inquiry-powered model of learning that uses compelling questions of rich multimedia sources of information to engage students with the world. Dr. Emma Thacker of Wake Forest University, Andy Kraft, the head of social studies instruction for the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, and I spent three days training twenty social studies teachers on the inquiry-based learning model - a pedagogical approach that invites students to explore academic content by posing, investigating, and answering compelling questions. Inquiry puts students’ questions at the heart of learning, and places just as much value on the asking and pursuing questions, as on answering them. You'll find a great example of field-tested and future-ready inquiry learning right here.

You may have heard of Google – humanity’s external hard drive – where you can find just about every answer. Since Google is about a billion times faster and a trillion times more knowledgeable than even the smartest student, modern education now needs not to teach kids the answers, but train them to ask and pursue questions. Kids don’t need to learn to be Google they need to learn to command Google. Our inquiry-learning professional development moves teachers from the past to the future.

In this future-ready, inquiry based model, compelling questions lead students through engaging multimedia sources to active understanding and informed civic action.

The key is learning to question

There are three steps in the inquiry process.

1) Start with a question.

Do you remember when there was no Google? Google it. Google was founded on September 4, 1998 in Menlo Park, CA – a fact that, thanks to Google, I don’t need to know, but that everyone needs to be able to find. Google started on the same day as I began my fifth year of teaching. By then, I already knew that filling brains with trivia was not the point of education, but as I looked around my school it was all that most of my colleagues were doing. Over the years, as Google has moved from desktop to laptop to the ubiquity of the phone, it’s become clear that out-knowing Google is no more possible than my cat catching a squirrel flying a Space Shuttle. And besides, education is bigger and nobler than cut, paste, & copy. Machines can do that; humans can do so much more!

The first and most essential step in inquiry learning is finding a compelling question in the content. Questions are like doors, and whatever content we teach will be most relevant and compelling to students when entered through powerful questions. Strong questions will make most any student actually want to know the answer. Start with the big questions & the little ones will follow. Start with the little questions & that’s usually where you’ll end.

Here’s a chart of two different sorts of questions.


2) Follow the question through rich and varied sources. 

Even though we live in a visually rich and stimulating age, surrounded by a flowing 3-dimensional data stream of cartoons, pictures, videos, text, magazines, maps, charts, and infographics, most teachers are stuck in the two-dimensional world of blackboards and words. Powerful teachers are not lecturers; they are curators who assemble information from the many rich and potent sources that surround us, and marry them to compelling questions for and from our students. Here’s a list of some sources of information for students.

Graphs, charts, polls, maps, primary sources, quotes, songs, videos, pictures, photographs, political cartoons, diagrams, stories, interviews, radio, television, film clips, etc.

And here’s what the students can do with their information to become actively engaged with the material.

Students use data to make Venn diagrams, mind maps, graphic organizers, charts, compare/contrast, rankings, write letters, turn information into Tweets, turn information into an analogy, use emoticons to convey information, make an argument, make an infographic with Piktochart, present learning, make a Prezi, make a blog, make a Tumblr, turn the information into a cartoon, make a caption for a photograph.

In our professional development I helped teachers curate active lessons using exciting and varied, information-rich sources.

3) Do something about it!

The end point of inquiry learning is informed action, which transforms students from passive learners to active citizen practitioners.

Here are examples of informed civic action:

1.     Petition the government about an issue of importance. Get people to sign your petition or create an online petition at

2.     Contact your local board of elections & make your own voter registration drive

3.     Hold a teach-in on a topic of importance to you and educate your peers about something of importance to you

4.     Assemble a group of people for a rally/protest/march of an issue you support

5.     Attend a public meeting and speak out for something you believe in

6.     Call in to a talk show and express your opinion on a topic of importance

7.     Write a letter to the editor about something important to you

8.     Speak to a politician or member of government on the phone or in person

9.     Invite a member of government/politician to speak to your class/group

10. Send a press release to a local media outlet promoting an interest of yours

11. Tag a public sidewalk in erasable CHALK (do not use any permanent materials!) espousing a particular idea or belief

12. Print and disseminate posters, pamphlets, or flyers supporting your opinion

13. Post your civic or political opinion on social media

14. Make up 5 poll or interview questions about a topic you know something about and hold an opinion on and poll/interview 10 people, then post your results

15. Volunteer your special skills to an organization

You can find a more comprehensive list of ideas at this link.

Curiosity is a good thing. And by the way, curiosity didn't kill the cat; it was boredom.

In North Carolina, we spent three days together with teachers, shepherding them through the inquiry-learning system: modeling inquiry-based lessons, reflecting upon our work, and assisting them in writing their own inquiry-based lessons. At the end of our three-day professional development, each of the 20 teachers presented the inquiry-based unit they had produced. In the months ahead, I will serve as a civic engagement expert and curriculum writing coach, helping these teachers create and teach two more inquiry-based units, which will serve as models and templates in the professional learning communities they will lead at their home schools. Next August, as a capstone of our work, in a professional development day for the entire social studies faculty of the Winston-Salem Forsyth County School District, our peer leaders will present and share their units, best practices, and lessons learned from their experience. Our work has already been inspiring, empowering, and transformative for all the teachers involved, and as the lessons and excitement are shared through our professional learning communities, the effects of inquiry learning will ripple out through the schools and classrooms across the district.

In New Kent County Virginia, I led the New Kent High School social studies faculty in a daylong hyper-abridged inquiry-learning teach-in. Even in the confines of one short day, we were able to create inspiring and empowering lessons that ask students to follow compelling questions through a sea of pictures, photographs, cartoons, charts, graphs, maps, writings, journal entries, data, and more to find answers that they then act upon. The lessons the teachers created and shared at the end of the day were creative, compelling, and engaging, and I know their students will profit from these empowering inquiry-based lessons. I only wish I had more time to partner with these inspiring teachers.

Our inquiry learning professional development had a transformative and empowering effect on all the participants who will now share their excitement with their colleagues through their schools’ professional learning communities. I would love to bring the power of inquiry learning through professional learning communities to your district as we move from the past into the bright future.  

If you'd like to bring training in inquiry learning to your school please contact me at

The 4Cs of Powerful Learning

Yesterday I led teachers and administrators in a professional development workshop on engaging and empowering learners. I began our workshop with a tale from my first year teaching history at the rough and tumble Stonewall Jackson Middle School in the heart of “Duce Ward” in inner city Houston.

I remember being surprised by the giant Roman numeral IIs graffitied across the Jackson schoolscape. At first I guessed there must be a very active Latin club or perhaps a super-engaging world history teacher behind these hand-painted Roman numerals. I was very, very wrong.

Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities had inspired me to work with Hispanic kids in the inner city, and I was exactly where I wanted to be, but still, Jackson Middle was eye-opening. I remember the joke a wisecracking cop told me on my first day of school.

“Hey, rookie,” the burly cop called out.


“Yeah, you, rookie.” Before I could walk over to shake hands and introduce myself, the cop laughed: “Hey Rookie, how many cops does it take to throw a student down the stairs at Jackson?” I winced.

“I don’t know…” I stammered.

“None!” The cop roared, slapping his thigh, spitting out his punch line, “He just slipped!”

The smartest person in the whole school was a kid named Jimmy. He didn’t have good grades or high PSAT scores or anything like that, but in his gangsta Dickies and long white t-shirt he burned with intelligence. With Jimmy, all the cognitive channels were open wide, and you could feel his brain whirring as he devoured all my class  had to offer. Jimmy-the-kid was rumored to be a Southwest Cholo gang member, and at age 14 he already had Gothic gang tattoos on his knuckles. I’d been trying to connect with Jimmy all year but nothing seemed to work; not the little talks we’d have after class, not the sports analogies I’d land in class, not the Spanish slang I’d throw his way (time to write your essay, Ese). I wasn’t getting through, but I wasn’t about to give up on this brilliant kid and see his big brain put to work selling drugs or leading a gang.

One crisp Friday afternoon in October, Jimmy raced up to me at the end of class. He looked nervous, his eyes darted around the room. He was pale and sweat ran down his face.

“What’s wrong, Jimmy?” I asked.

“Meester,” he said. (All the students called all the male teachers Meester. It could make for confusion whenever a student needed one of us in the teachers’ lounge.) “There’s something I really want to talk with you about. Can you walk me to the bus Meester?”

I was elated. I’d finally broken through. I was just 25, hardly older than some of my students, and Jimmy wanted to talk to me. I was becoming a man. What, I wondered, did Jimmy want to talk about? Was he going to ask for more details on the Emancipation Proclamation? Did he want to borrow my favorite biography? This was my Stand and Deliver moment! I was ecstatic. At long last I was about to connect with Jimmy.

As we walked to the bus I was grinning ear to ear, but Jimmy was distracted, his gaze darting around every corner.

“Jimmy,” I said, “Why do you keep getting in fights, man? I mean, I don’t fight when I have problems.”

“And you don’t live in my neighborhood, Meester.”

Which was true – thank god! A softie like me wouldn’t have lasted a second at Jackson.

“But Jimmy, you’re so smart. You could really go somewhere! You could really make something of yourself with that big brain. I mean why don’t you even try, or turn your work in for once? You could be a star in my class!”

“No disrespect, Meester,” said Jimmy, “but it’s not like I’m planning to be a historian or nothin’.”

And that’s when I realized, smack in the middle of my first year teaching, that I wasn’t really trying to make my class into a little army of historians. In fact, I wasn’t really teaching history. What I was actually doing was teaching my students skills: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity - the Four Cs. And what I’ve learned in my 22 years teaching since then is that the best teachers always use their subject-- math, English, science, or whatever it is-- to teach their kids successful habits of being. We teachers were all taking different routes, but we were headed towards the same place.

As I spoke to Jimmy, I realized that these skills I was trying desperately to teach in my class were probably much more valuable in the Deuce Ward than they ever were back at my Alma Mater. At Wake Forest, if you couldn’t think critically or communicate creatively, then you’d have to suffer Daddy having bought you a Volvo instead of a Lexus. Here in the ‘hood, thinking fast could be a matter of life and death.

We arrived at the bus.

“So, Jimmy,” I said as he mounted the stairs to the bus. “What was it you were so desperate to talk about that you asked me to walk you out to the bus?”

“Oh nothin’, Meester,” he said casually.

“Nothin’? So why’d you ask me to walk with you? What was so important?”

“Oh yeah. That. Sorry Meester.” He paused and scanned the horizon. “So this other gang, Meester, they have a hit out on me. So I figures if a teacher walks to the bus with me, I’m less likely to get shot. You know what I mean? Capped!”

So that’s was the first time I saved a life! And you know, saving a life is something that you feel really good about, but you don’t particularly want to do again.

And that’s when I learned the second important lesson in my first year of teaching. When a gang member asks you to walk him to the bus, you tell him to download the Uber app.

I guess this is just a long way of saying content is not the ends, content is only the means to practice the skills and habits of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. And the good news is that the hit never happened; Jimmy ended up graduating from Jackson Middle; and we all practiced the 4Cs happily ever after.